Shi’a


omidshia

by Omid Safi (@ostadjaan), On Being columnist, January 7, 2016

In the last few days, virtually every news outlet has featured a series of stories on the rising tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The conflict by now is well-known: Saudi Arabia executed 47 people, including Shi‘i cleric Nimr al-Nimr. While both Iran and Saudi Arabia are among the worst global executioners of dissidents, the sheer size of these executions was rare even by their gruesome standards. Iran retaliated through bombastic rhetoric, stating, “God’s hand of retaliation will grip the neck of Saudi politicians.” The two countries have broken off diplomatic relations, a tension that has rippled across the region.

The New York Times, arguably the most respected newspaper in America, featured a primer on the conflict that was devoted mostly to discussing succession disputes to the Prophet Muhammad that in due time led to the rise of the Sunni and Shi‘a sects. The Guardian has devoted a long section to this conflict. So has The Economist.

There are many political scientists and public policy pundits that you can turn to for grasping the geopolitics of the situation. You can listen to Vali Nasr, dean of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, with NPR’s Renee Montaigne, and on PRI’s The World. But as a scholar of religion, let me share a few points that I think might be useful to keep in mind to think intelligently — and I trust, compassionately — through this latest conflict.

One. In order to understand this conflict, do not start with Sunni/Shi‘a seventh century succession disputes to Prophet. This is a modern dispute, not one whose answers you are going to find in pre-modern books of religious history and theology. Think about how absurd it would be if we were discussing a political conflict between the U.S. and Russia, and instead of having political scientists we brought on people to talk about the historical genesis of the Greek Orthodox Church.

Probably the most succinct elaboration of this point came from Marc Lynch:

“The idea of an unending, primordial conflict between Sunnis and Shiites explains little about the ebbs and flows of regional politics. This is not a resurgence of a 1,400-year-old conflict.”

The attempt to explain the Iranian/Saudi conflict, or for that matter every Middle Eastern conflict, in purely religious terms is part of an ongoing Orientalist imagination that depicts these societies as ancient, unchanging, un-modern societies where religion is the sole determining factor (allegedly unlike an imagined “us,” who have managed to become modern and secular.) Watch this four-part series by the late, great Edward Said on how Orientalism operates (skip the introduction):

There is no disputing that religion is a factor in understanding the Middle East. In some conflicts, it might even be a primary factor. But it is never, ever the only factor. Most often it is the other factors (history, economics, ideology, demographics) that are much more important.

Religion, religious traditions, and human societies never stay static and unchanging. There is no such thing as an eternal, unchanging human tradition.

For the rest of this commentary, click here.

For my post at Mena Tigningen, click here.


Saudi Arabia has announced
that their Decisive Storm bombing campaign is over and they have accomplished their apparent goal of destroying any military capacity of Yemen. There is an old proverb in Arabic that states “ba’d kharab Basra” (after the destruction of Basra) and it is quite apt as a follow up to this news. The weapons destroyed can be replaced, and no doubt at some future date will be, but the lives lost and the mortal wounds to Yemen’s pride can never be restored even by a so-called “Restoration of Hope.” The Saudi offer to pay millions to rebuild Yemen pales in terms of what I assume must be measured by at least a billion or more in terms of the bombs dropped and resupplied. If instead of attacking Yemen from the air, the same amount of money had been given to build health clinics and schools, what a different outcome there would be. Instead, the stench of war is not about to be overcome by any monetary perfuming from abroad.

The damage inflicted by this ill-conceived war campaign is obvious. Forget the nonsense about an Iranian threat, which there never was. The Huthis never controlled anything; it was Salih’s former military supporters who were behind the takeover of Sanaa and the push to Aden. Try to remember the real threat inside Yemen, the one that energized the U.S. drone campaign: al-Qaida, known as Ansar Sharia, has more power and more sympathy now that at any other time. The south is basically in their control. There is little chance that they would welcome Hadi back. So the result of this bombing is a totally destabilized Yemen, a security nightmare, a humanitarian crisis that is not likely to be alleviated soon. (more…)

There is a sense in which all wars are stupid wars. But some are more stupid than others. Invading Iraq, which posed no tangible danger to the United States but filled the brainless crania of a group of neocons, is a prime example. Can you imagine Iraq as an ally of Iran or as a breeding ground for extreme ISIS terrorists if Saddam or one of his cronies was still in command? This is not to praise a butcher like Saddam, but to point out that the unintended, even if quite predictable, outcomes of hastily made warmongering tend to take on lives, as they take out lives, on their own. So here is the current scorecard for Decisive Storm, as it nears a month of nightly bombing. Instead of weakening the unholy alliance between the Huthis and Ali Abdullah Salih, this group controls more territory than it did when the bombing started. The major shock from the “shock and awe” campaign thus far is that it is destroying Yemen’s infrastructure and formal military structure, but steadily gaining allies who resent the vast destruction being unleashed on their homeland. Many of those Yemenis who did not like the Huthis now hate the Saudis even more. In addition to the homeless and the dead, the pride of Yemeni nationalism has been seriously wounded, but it is nowhere near dying.

Once upon a time the enemy in Yemen was al-Qaida, the group that sparked our unending and unnerving “War on Terrorism.” It was self-styled as a war against the uncivilized, since in this case only the civilized could muster drones and sophisticated bomber planes. Under Obama’s watch a few al-Qaida operatives were eliminated, along with a larger number of civilians who get classified as collateral damage. The American people are still being told that al-Qaida is our main enemy. Remember the Alamo; remember 9/11. But no longer, it seems. (more…)

Since the start of the Saudi-led Decisive Storm campaign in Yemen, I have published two commentaries on the blog of the Center for Middle East Studies at Lund University and three interviews on The Real News. While the situation is changing daily, seemingly for the worse each day, I note these commentaries here:

Lund Blog:
Proxy Morons: The Demolition of Yemen (http://www.menatidningen.se/english/proxy-morons-the-demolition-of-yemen) March 27

Sliding Towards a Virtual Genocide in Yemen (http://www.menatidningen.se/english/sliding-towards-a-virtual-genocide-in-yemen) April 13

The Real News:
Proxy Morons: The Demolition of Yemen (3/1)
http://therealnews.com/t2/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=31&Itemid=74&jumival=13565 April 4

Proxy Morons: The Demolition of Yemen (3/2)
http://therealnews.com/t2/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=31&Itemid=74&jumival=13636 April 12

Proxy Morons: The Demolition of Yemen (3/3)
http://therealnews.com/t2/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=31&Itemid=74&jumival=13639 April 13

by Helen Lackner , Open Democracy, 6 April 2015

The war which has now started is what many of us feared for so long and hoped, against all rational thinking, would be avoided. And this time, let us not fool ourselves with misguided optimism, this will be long and as awful as any war can be. While political and even military internal struggles are hardly a novelty in Yemen, the new element is that the conflict has now added a major layer of international ‘proxy’ features which will only worsen the situation, making it reminiscent of the Lebanese civil war in the 1970s-80s.

Why is this the outcome of the 2011 revolutionary uprisings seeking economic development, justice and dignity, the end of kleptocracy and other good things? Who is to blame? Could it have been avoided? My earlier articles provide some of the background to understanding the current situation, and while many of these factors remain relevant today, and will remain so in the foreseeable future, the outbreak of full-scale war including foreign parties is an entirely unprecedented phenomenon which will affect Yemen’s people and the region for years to come.

While Saudi Arabian involvement in Yemeni affairs is a longstanding fact, going back to the Imamate period and the earliest days of the creation of the Kingdom, this is the first time SA has taken the initiative to launch a major international military attack, albeit by air.

International media talk constantly of Huthi forces, but in reality the main military force in Yemen is now that of ex-president Saleh who, wherever he is, is doing what he promised: destroying as much as he possibly can.

It may not be particularly useful to non-specialists of Yemen to go into the details of the sequence of events since the Huthi coup of 6 February. But a rapid recall of the main events is important. After a month under house arrest in Sana’a, the legitimate internationally recognised president escaped to Aden where he attempted to establish a temporary government. Although the southern separatists, one of whose main strongholds is Aden, gave him at least tacit support, Huthis and former president Saleh military forces increased their attacks southwards and rapidly reached Aden itself. The ‘popular committees’, ie local militias supporting him, are no match for Huthi/Saleh well trained and equipped forces. Since participating in the Arab Summit at Sharm el Sheikh, Hadi and his ministers are in Riyadh which has become their operational base.

For the rest of this article, click here.

The first part of my interview about the current situation in Yemen on The Real News…

All eyes at the moment are glued to the news about the aerial attacks by a coalition of Saudi, GCC and Jordanian planes (with more to come it seems) on Huthi and military targets in Yemen. This is not a scenario I want to see; this is not a commentary I want to write. Yemen is imploding, the victim of long standing foreign involvement, local rivalries fueled by the insecurity with the removal of Ali Abdullah Salih and, in large part, the insatiable drive of Salih and his supporters to regain power. The Arab Spring removal of Salih was relatively peaceful, at least in terms of a military standoff and an explosion that could easily have ended Salih’s life but for the grace of the Saudis to put him back together. Guns abound in Yemen, as everyone knows, but the kind of hate-fueled warfare that has engulfed Iraq and Syria had not erupted. There was a national dialogue that most, but not all, groups participated in. There was a glimmer of hope.

This morning that glimmer seemed much dimmer, following on the rapid turn of events since the Huthi takeover of Sanaa and the recent escape of President Hadi to Aden. Yemen’s fragmented military is no match for the Saudi coalition arsenal directed by American intelligence. A bunch of gabilis in pick-up trucks may look tough on first glance, but they might as well be riding chariots. Reports suggest Saudi Arabia has assembled a force of some 150,000 at their border, with fears that a local RISK game will break out after the bombing has nullified the capacity of the Huthis to resist any advance. (more…)

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